Lessons from a support boat

Boats ready for the arrival of their swimmer past the 1.5km mark.

Summer is near to the end. For me, it has been the first open water season ever. I entered several competitions, some with just a few participants and also some with a long history and hundreds of swimmers. However, if you swim in Western Australia you know that the mother of all open water swimming events is the Rottnest channel crossing. Nineteen point seven kilometers. There are two races organised across the channel: the Rottnest Channel Swim, simply known as “The Rottnest”, starts from Cottesloe beach and it is held at the end of February, and the “Port to Pub”, which leaves from Leighton beach later in March. Entries for The Rottnest close early as it is the most iconic and crowded swim, with more than three thousands participants divided into solo, duo or team sections. On the other hand entries for the Port to Pub are open until a few weeks before the competition. I had never though of swimming almost 20k in my life, but now I really want to take up the challenge. Crossing the Rottnest channel, and doing it in a race, is my next swimming goal.

How do you condition for an open water 20k? If I stick training with the awesome people of my informal squad, eventually I will get there. Many of them have done the swim several times, a few have tens of crossing under their belt. They know how to arrive fit ready at the start. But what is behind the preparation of the day you swim an off-shore 20k? This is called experience and it is not something you learn by doing day in and day out in a swimming pool. The race day could turn into a disaster for an off shore swimmer newbie like me. This is why  I promptly volunteered when a friend of mine needed some help on his support boat for a duo crossing at this year Port to Pub. I had just to keep timing for changes, to pull my friends swimmers on the boat, to communicate with the paddler and to “support” whenever something I could done was needed. In terms of reward, the experience on the boat has been invaluable.

A paddler and the swimmer.

The skipper and the paddler. A swimmer cannot make it to Rottnest without a support boat and a paddler. It’s not just a question of regulations or safety, I don’t think it is simply possible if you are racing. Our skipper was very good and experienced. Despite a forecast of currents from south to north becoming stronger half through the morning and suggestions from the swimming community to stay as south as possible after the 10th km mark, he just kept our swimmers slightly below the rhumb line, because by looking at the sea conditions there was no need to go more south, he said. And he was right. This is why I think he is a good skipper. Between the boat and the swimmer, there is the paddler. The paddler communicates with the swimmer and follows the route indicated by the skipper. Paddlers are often the unrecognized heroes of the channel crossing: they keep the swimmer on track, they pass them food and beverages, sometimes they need to force feedings and support morally the swimmer during the most difficult parts of the crossing. You need an experienced paddlers as much as you need an experienced skipper.

Wake up early on the day.
The first wave of the Rottnest is at 5:45am, the start of the Port to Pub at 6:10. This year, to have some breakfast and be on the boat on time I woke up at 3:30am. And all that I had to do was just eating a slice of brownie and drive to the Fremantle yacht sailing club. On the big day I really want to have breakfast before doing a 20k, but I will need time for logistic movements (taking my wife to the boat at the sailing club and then go to the start…or ask for a lift and some help…) and race preparation (registration, wool fat, wool fat, wool fat, anti chafing, zinc and sunblock).

This is what you need on the day: paddler and boat. The swimmer is on the middle.

Drinks and food. For drinks and food I understand that if you can stand it, then it’s ok. The best suggestion of all is to test a food or a beverage in advance to see if you can keep it down while swimming. Beverages? I heard that you can simply use Gatorade, but I may give a try to my own mix of electrolytes and fast release carbs. Somebody with many many crossings under the belt told me the secret weapon is degassed warm coke for the last 5k. Others swear on chocolate milk. On the boat they also had extra-sweet coffee. For food, a carb up one or two days before the event is advised, but then on the boat I saw hot cross buns, white bread, milk chocolates, bananas and even hard-boiled eggs.

Sunblock, anti-chafing and wool fat.
Looking at people ready to start the Rottnest and at my friends on the boat you can easily understand that sunblock and anti-chafing are never too much. For the sunblock, my friend says to apply a layer early in the morning, repeat the application later, and then to apply a further layer of zinc. This sounds to me a good idea if you have to stay under direct sunlight in February/March in Australia for four to six hours. Any form of anti-chafing is important as much as sunblock. I use vaseline under my armpits, around my neck and on my racing jammers seams when I do open water competitions, my friend uses an anti-chafing balm when he swims in the ocean, but for the crossing he goes for wool fat. A lot. I thinks the reason is that an anti-chafing balm is less messy, but it won’t last five or six hours. On the other hand wool fat is really messy and you won’t take it off easily. Wool fat is more likely to help you for all the duration of the crossing, and even if it won’t really protect from the cold, maybe it will help you feeling it a bit less.

Seasickness and hypothermia. Another friend of mine swam the Rottnest recently. She placed really well at the end, but when she finished her body temperature was 32 degrees. It’s incredible thinking to keep swimming and finish a 20k in rough sea conditions with strong currents even with such a low body temperature. Hypothermia is a real risk to calculate when swimming across the channel. I think that wool fat and hot beverages can help you to a certain degree, but they will never protect you. That friend of mine is really skinny, other people with more “natural fat” didn’t report any issue at all: natural fat is what can protect you a bit more from hypothermia. Maybe it is better to have some few more kilos around the belly than being pulled out of the water. Another problem that causes many people serious issues is seasickness. Especially with strong currents and high swell, seasickness can hit when you are most tired and already struggling through the waves. The problem is that with seasickness you won’t retain food and beverages into your stomach, and this sum up with fatigue and lack for energy: a recipe for disaster. My friend on the boat took a medicine for seasickness, you never know.

Almost there: the last few kilometers before reaching Rottnest.

Swimsuit.  People wear different styles of swimsuit depending on their starting wave. In the slower waves common bathers which are simple training swimsuit are the most popular choice, for men either as briefs or trunks. Personally I would rather opt for the former, but it’s a matter of personal choice. However in the faster waves then majority of people was wearing a racing suit. And here is the dilemma for me: leg pants or full body? The obvious answer would be full body, but is it ok to wear for 5 hours a really tight full body suit? I did 3 hours with my racing jammers on recently at a swimming pool meet, and I couldn’t stand it more: I did the final relay of the day wearing my briefs. If I decide to go for a full body I must find an effective way to prevent chafing, and also must wear the suit for several races in advance, to get used and so see where seams cause chafing. However, the fact that most fast swimmers in the crossing are wearing this model shows that maybe it is the suit to go for.

The support boat must leave the swimmer at around 1k before the finish. The paddler can proceed a bit further but then they must leave too. The swimmer reaches the beach alone. There is a good recovery zone accessible just beyond the finish line, but it is better to decide in advance where to meet with the people from the support boat, because the finish area around the pub on Rottnest is heavily crowded and you will need your stuff soon as the only things you have with you are your goggles and cap.

I feel I must repeat this as a kind of disclaimer: I didn’t swim the race yet and these are just a few things that I learned by helping out two friends in their duo crossing. But I will and I really hope that as rookie I won’t get too many surprises.

A quokka at the pub.

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